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Game Five Preview: Gut check time for the Colorado Avalanche

Without Cale Makar and Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado’s depth will face its biggest test all year tonight.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at Seattle Kraken Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Despite what many fans, pundits, and sharps in the desert believed coming into this series, the Colorado Avalanche and Seattle Kraken have played each other to a draw by pretty much any measure you look at. The series is tied 2-2, the Avs have a slight Corsi edge at 5-on-5 this series at 51 percent, and the Kraken have a slight expected goals edge at 51 percent.

Many in Colorado have interpreted this even split as proof that the sky is falling and the Avs are in deep trouble, but it simply just reinforces Nathan MacKinnon’s proclamation made after Game 3 that “this is definitely the hardest first round I’ve been in.” Colorado has played far from their best hockey against Seattle, and they will need to put on their best performance of the playoffs without multiple key players tonight. These are the kinds of games where their championship mettle must shine through.

Colorado Avalanche

All season long the Avalanche were forced to make do without key contributors, and game 5 is something of a culmination of this season-long struggle. Cale Makar was suspended for this game over his late hit that injured Seattle’s leading goal-scorer Jared McCann, and Valeri Nichushkin has been mysteriously missing in action due to “personal reasons” since Game 2. Sportsnet’s Frank Servalli said yesterday he heard a rumor that the absence was alcohol-related, but Nichushkin’s agent Mark Gandler denied this report, telling MetaRatings “Nichushkin left Colorado because of problems with alcohol? This is not so.”

Colorado hasn’t had its back against the wall in the playoffs like this since the notorious Vegas series in the 2020-21 season when the Avs blew a golden opportunity to take control of the series and wound up getting out-muscled the rest of the way en route to an early postseason exit. The Avs hope that this series against another upstart expansion squad ratcheting up the physicality will be different, but it will be an especially difficult task when their two most physical forwards are out of the lineup, and perhaps their most physical defenseman is still trying to find his footing after sitting out the last month of the season with an injury.

There’s a sense around Colorado that this season is hopelessly cursed and this playoff series is the final nail in the coffin in a year where virtually nothing has gone Colorado’s way outside of transcendent seasons from Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Alexandar Georgiev, but the Avs are defending champions and no matter how short-handed they are, they will not go down without a fight. These are the kinds of games where your superstars need to be special, and MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Georgiev have proven in this series that they can win a game for the Avs on any given night.

Projected Lineup:

Artturi Lehkonen — Nathan MacKinnon — Evan Rodrigues
Matt Nieto — J.T. Compher — Mikko Rantanen
Ben Meyers — Lars Eller — Denis Malgin
Andrew Cogliano — Alex Newhook — Logan O’Connor

Bowen Byram — Devon Toews
Erik Johnson — Samuel Girard
Josh Manson — Brad Hunt

Note: In Game 4, Jared Bednar played three lines down the stretch and benched Meyers, Malgin, and Newhook in favor of a third line of Cogliano, Eller, and O’Connor, so it’s quite possible that he sticks with that combination as his third line for Game 5. There’s been very little news on Jack Johnson since he injured himself in pregame warmups before Game 1, and if he is healthy enough to play, he surely will be in the lineup tonight (he was on the ice this morning in a full-contact jersey, and Jared Bednar said he’s in a “we’ll see” status for tonight), but over who is a big question. He was the announced starter over Erik Johnson before the series, but Josh Manson has really struggled against Seattle, and Brad Hunt has been serviceable all year but the Avs clearly don’t trust him to handle major minutes. The only certainty about Colorado’s Makar-less back line tonight is that Byram, Toews, and Girard are going to get heavy minutes. He could go 11 forwards, seven defensemen as well.

Seattle Kraken

Coming off the biggest win in franchise history, it feels like Seattle is in the driver’s seat of this series. They dominated the Avs at 5-on-5 in Game 4, earning 78 percent of the expected goals in the first period, 81 percent in the second, and 64 percent in the third period. That game put Seattle’s heart and grit on full display as they were coming off a Game 3 where they were largely kept in check to the tune of just 39 percent of all expected goals at 5-on-5.

Colorado has controlled this series in spurts (save for Game 3 which is their only complete performance), but Seattle has been the more consistent team since the puck was first dropped in Game 1. Their depth forwards have vastly outplayed Colorado’s depth forwards (except for Lars Eller who has been fantastic), as the Avs have just four line combinations with a positive Corsi at 5-on-5 and three of them are led by the best player in this series (Cogliano, Eller, and O’Connor at 70 percent in 6:37 of ice time, Lehkonen, MacKinnon and Rodrigues at 65 percent in 32:19, Compher, MacKinnon, and Rantanen at 62 percent in 7:12, and Rodrigues, MacKinnon and Rantanen at 58 percent in 17:19).

Jared Bednar only played three lines for a significant chunk of Game 4, and it exposed the biggest mismatch in this series. The Kraken can roll four legit lines and keep players fresh while consistently controlling the play, and the Avalanche have been forced to hope that their bottom three lines can just hold serve long enough for MacKinnon and whoever he is paired with to work their magic. The question for Seattle now is whether that advantage will continue without their leading goal-scorer. Jared McCann’s absence will force some reshuffling of Seattle’s lines, and it could have a cascading effect where their depth forwards don’t control play as much as they have this series while tilting the first-line advantage even further in MacKinnon’s direction.

Projected Lineup:

Jaden Schwartz — Yanni Gourde — Jordan Eberle
Eeli Tolvanen — Alexander Wennberg — Morgan Geekie
Brandon Tanev — Matthew Beniers — Oliver Bjorkstrand
Jesper Froden — Ryan Donato — Daniel Sprong

Vince Dunn — Adam Larsson
Jamie Oleksiak — William Borgen
Carson Soucy — Justin Schultz


You can very easily make the case that Colorado would be down 3-1 without Alexandar Georgiev’s heroics in net. Jared Bednar has said multiple times that the first period in Game 2 where the Avs had just 14 percent of expected goals could have been much worse than a 2-0 deficit if not for Georgiev robbing Seattle a few times, and he was the main reason Colorado even reached overtime in Game 4 where they were as thoroughly outplayed as they have been all year.

Philipp Grubauer has been very good this series, as all of Colorado sports talk proclaiming they wanted to face Seattle’s subpar goaltending has proven to be the textbook example of a jinx. Colorado has had the edge in net this series, but Grubauer has played well enough that it hasn’t been as significant of one as we all had hoped.